By Rev. Chris Pollock
As a person with a theological education I understand that one can become heady and lack the ability to practice faith in the real world. But, as Christians we must remind ourselves that our theology should inform the way we live practically. Therefore, it is really important that we be very careful about what we teach to our kids as those messages become rooted deep in them.
First of all, I want to make it known that our family enjoys "getting presents" from Santa. It's fun to put out cookies and milk and to be surprised by what we find the next morning. I also want to acknowledge that St. Nicholas was a real man who was a Bishop and faithful follower of Christ. He worked to redeem those who were broken and oppressed. This is where the legend of bringing Christmas presents to children came. This St. Nicolas was quite a man and someone I can respect deeply. His works of justice and mercy are leap years ahead of where I am but he also give me a vision for where I want to be.
We must recognize though that in this day we do not talk about Ol' St. Nicholas and his works of justice but rather his story has evolved from a serious Christ follower to a consumeristic old man who warns that he watches what we do and if we are not good then good things are not given to us. Santa is found all over - from store front windows to sitcom television shows - and his message is loud and clear: "If you are good, you get good things. If you are bad... not so much.”
Santa, at least during the season that should focus on the first advent (coming) of the Christ, has become the new god who represents the fulfillment of all of our immediate wants. Call me the Grinch but I think this is exactly opposite of the message of grace. This is the message of legalism. Legalism is the anti-Christmas.
The message of grace that comes in Christmas is the most transforming message in the history of the world - Immanuel, God with us, God incarnate, the one who will be called wonderful, counselor, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. In the Nativity story we see that God, the creator of the universe, enters into the darkness of this world and becomes dependent on his creation. What a ridiculous idea! And yet, this story is that of grace and it transforms our lives.
I have met parents who use the Santa as a means to manipulate and coerce their children to avoid or participate in certain behaviors... "Now, Santa isn't going to bring you anything for Christmas" are the words commonly used. I have also encountered people who, in the midst of own poverty cannot afford presents, and lead their children to conclude that they must not have been good this year because Santa didn't deliver.
So, for parents, grandparents, and anyone else who gets fooled by the anti-Christmas Santa (including myself) I have included a few practical action steps: 1) Celebrate Advent before you celebrate Christmas. Advent is a time for preparation and we specifically take some time to prepare ourselves (in a very literal sense) for the second coming of Christ. Get an Advent wreath and an Advent guide and read it together as a family. Also, include family prayer, scripture reading surrounding Advent/Christmas themes, and intentionally set aside meal times for discussion about how your family can bring Christmas to someone in need.
2) Understand that the reason gifts are given is because Christ and the message of grace is a gift to us. Therefore, for every gift that is received, have kids/parents give something away that someone could use. We try (not every time, but as best as we can) to give away a toy for every toy that is received. Parents can do this as well. In this way the whole family gets to be Christ in the world.
3) Do not substitute the "what Santa brought" story for the Nativity story on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. When we do this we implicitly teach that receiving and feeling good are more important than the self-emptying love found in Philippians 2.
We must remember that in Christmas, when we couldn't deliver, God was delivered to us - literally.
This is grace.
God was delivered and does deliver, not to meet our every immediate desire but to meet our deepest spiritual need. In Christmas we find a sense of “identity, meaning, purpose, and community”* every time.
Grace is for those trapped in guilt ridden rules and for those who are broken, poor and oppressed. Even 'Ol St. Nick knew that one.
*Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press), 107.